Sometimes you get snookered, even by a good writer. When last I left the reviewing of Susan Hill’s ouevre, we were talking about the case of a serial kidnapper and killer of children. Case never solved, even after 500 detailed pages….. or so we thought. That is, until we opened up The Risk of Darkness’ and discovered, the hunt was still on, and now there were fresh clues, even a suspect taken into custody, found with a young girl stashed in the trunk of her Ford.
For the record, I don’t like being snookered. I realize that many cases get solved much later than they should do, but each novel should stand on it’s own two feet… and this one doesn’t. It does something P.D. James never did. It is a continuation of the same story, for the most part (if we are talking main plot) for another 472 pages. Now one can understand that had Hill offered us a 975 page novel, there wouldn’t have been a lot of takers. Too daunting. In fact these two sprawling novels could have been edited down into one cracker jack novel almost as good as her first one.
This novel however is not without some considerable merits. First of all there is an amazing scene in this novel where you have an Anglican priest, a woman, trapped in her own house by a man whose young wife died of a horrible incurable disease, and now he’s blaming God, or as near as possible, God’s agent— Jane Kilroy. The stand off is tense and scary, and the dialogue is worth listening to, over and over again. Basically, mad Max (yes his name is Max) is insisting that since she Jane believes in miracles, she must pray up one on demand, right now, on the spot… namely bringing his wife back from the dead. And when she says she can’t, of course, he goes nuts. Not to worry, she survives it. But the dialogue about what good is prayer if it can’t produce a miracle when you really need one, is worth the price of reading the book. It’s the kind of set piece one can use to teach a Sunday school lesson, or preach a sermon, or start a class.
There are other merits to the story as well. Susan Hill is probing deeply the nature of genuine evil. She doesn’t want it explained away as insanity, or some kind of mere psychological aberration. No, she wants us to look evil square in the face and try and understand it. The problem is, if sin is inherently irrational behavior, if there really is a God, then evil has got to be truly something strange. Perhaps it is like cancer… it does not exist in itself, but requires the good to even exist. It is a cancer on the good. Put another way, perhaps it is the total rejection of the good, not something independent or an entity unto itself. But in this novel evil is palpable. An apparently ordinary, sane woman gets her thrills by kidnapping and killing kids… and then burying them in neat little rows in……. well I won’t tell you. And perhaps the lesson is that we shall never answer the Why question— why would someone ever do that, especially if the person is actually sane??
Hill is a proponent of the bad is not the same as made theory, and I think she is mostly right.
This novel does have one further drawback. One too many irrelevant subplots that are a distraction rather than comic or some other kind of relief, from the drama at the heartbeat of the book. In short, don’t begin reading Hill with this novel. Try the first one….. The Various Haunts of Men.